Tag Archives: violence

The Venus Flytrap: What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Delta Meghwal

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Delta Meghwal wanted to study. She was raped, murdered and towed away in a garbage tractor.

Delta was the first girl in her village (Trimohi, Rajasthan) to go to secondary school. Then she went on to Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute. She was Dalit. She was 17.

On the evening of March 28th, the hostel warden instructed her to clean the PT instructor’s room, where she was raped.

Returning to her room, injured and terrified, she called her father. The next morning, she was found dead in a tank. Police then took her body to the hospital in a municipal garbage tractor. The autopsy showed that there was no water in her lungs. She did not drown herself.

Pause. You didn’t know. Now – do you care?

Delta Meghwal was an artist. A painting she made of a camel in Class 4 was hung in Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s office. Is it still there – reproaching the politicians who haven’t spoken a word about her murder?

She is not the first woman – artist or otherwise – to meet a tragic end because her talent stood at odds with what was expected of her. I don’t see Buzzfeed articles, neatly packaging tragedy for public consumption, with images of her paintings. I don’t see a government agency being set up in her name to provide arts scholarships for underprivileged girls. When her devastated father tells a reporter, “I shouldn’t have educated her… maybe she’d still be alive”, all I see is the story of Delta’s murder being used to frighten disenfranchised parents into wanting less for their children.

Most of all, I don’t see your 140 characters of hashtagged outrage. And that is what makes me sickest of all.

When Jyoti Singh Pandey – valorised as Nirbhaya – was raped and murdered, the entire nation grieved publicly. We observed candlelight marches. We claimed her as sister and daughter. We demanded that laws be changed. If that solidarity is reserved only for those whose backgrounds don’t discomfit our smug lightweight activism, it is no solidarity at all. It is ugly hypocrisy. There is zero meaning to your still angrily shuddering at the words “Delhi gangrape” if you ignore Delta Meghwal today.

The mainstream media is silent. In Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Bikaner, photos of small demonstrations show mostly men, protesting caste violence. Where are the women, the ones who cried for Nirbhaya?

Talking about Delta’s death means talking about caste, and our complicity when we ignore aspects of any power system that serve us, but not others. It means being uncomfortable.

Now, when I hear the words “the Delhi gangrape”, I want to correct the grammar. That was a gangrape that took place in Delhi in December of 2012: in that same month, in that same city, there were others, mostly with fewer perpetrators involved.

That year, 24,923 rapes were reported in India (more – more than we know or want to imagine – were not). 98% of those perpetrators were known to the victim. We chose to focus on one case in the 2%, conveniently othering the rapists on the basis of class.

What about Delta Meghwal – has she been othered too?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Vachathi

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There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.

Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.

Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.

Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.

Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.

Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.

Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.

It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.

The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.

Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.

An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.

Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.

It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.

That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.

At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: My Bloody Valentine

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There’s a story I like to tell about an incident that hasn’t happened yet, and to be realistic, might never actually occur. This may be my favourite, and most frequently contemplated, revenge fantasy, but it is also by far the most restrained one I could potentially imagine for this scenario. It puts me in an exuberant mood to describe its minutiae – who said what, who wore what, architectural detail, supporting characters, soundtrack and scenery. I love to see how my friends react as we reach the story’s singular defining triumph: the clip clop clip clop of my high heels as I walk away from the table into the afternoon light of a city straight out of a TV show.

My weapons are only words, and they are designed to leave incisions, but not casualties. I intend only to draw the curtains, not to draw blood. The most that is spilled are tears (not mine), and perhaps, for cinematic affectation, the contents of a fine-stemmed glass across a crisp tablecloth. The air ricochets, in that final frame, with the sound of stilettos, not bullets, and those stilettos themselves are deployed for no purposes sharper than style.

I am less tranquil, however, in art – both the art I consume and the art I create. “Not you too, Black Mamba!” I admonished the screen in the disappointing latter half of the Kill Bill diptych, as our Lady of Atonement herself mellowed out like the rest of us lily-livered mortals. Where was the gore and hunger of the first film? Give me blood and guts – literal and figurative – and righteous rage. And glory, in many spades. Do it with flair – do it like the merry murderesses in Chicago, cell-block-tangoing their way to fully, fabulously, deserved incarceration. The best vengeance is vicarious.

Violence enjoyed or expressed through art, indulged in imagination, or released in aggressive sport, is not senseless. If anything, it is sensible – even sensual. It’s a primal scream in a soundproof room. It’s also an indicator of one’s sanity or lack thereof. The sociopath is consumed by it – the sound-minded, as I said earlier, simply consume it. There is a delicious mercenary quality to brief immersion – by participating in a proxy ritual, be it armchair massacre or arm-wrestling, there is relief and satiation for that bloodthirst without anyone else having to suffer for it. Surrogate slaughter, if you will. It is singular obsession that is dangerous.

Perhaps this is why, for someone with such a taste for brutality, my own pet revenge fantasy is so decidedly sterile. No adrenaline, no deeply visceral satisfaction – but also no horrific aftermath, no guilt, no demons – at least, not new ones. What I want is closure. What I want is conversation. Neither are within my grasp for now, so I’ll take what I can get: staving off my madness, the madness we are all capable of, with another movie marathon, the violence of a Pollock, the brute force of the Bösendorfer in the Boys For Pele album, the drum dance, the deep laugh, the riot of my own angry paintbrushes, the pleasure in the way my own voice delivers a certain sequence of words into a microphone, the power to eviscerate a poem of its pretty so all that’s left is elemental, vital, staccato. Clip clop clip clop.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Healing, Subtle As A Scar

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Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.

Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.

Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.

Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.

In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.

I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.

Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.

The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.

I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.

The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.

There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.

An adapted version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

A Show of Stupidity

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When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.

The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).

On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.

Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.

And then we waited. For about forty minutes.

We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.

Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.

And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.

He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”

Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.

Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.

Seriously.

And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.

We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.

But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.

No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.

Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?

Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?

We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.

I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.

Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?

I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)

And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?

Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?

For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!

Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.

Cell Block Tango from Chicago

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This song found its way back into my head yesterday, and I remembered that the clip below is one of my all-time favourite music/dance sequences in a film (that credit does not go to Bollywood, believe it or not!). I adore its wickedness. Female aggression — one of my favourite topics. I don’t really think that feminism has even begun to tap into it in its entirety.